Renegotiating Roles in Local Governments: Facing Resistances to Citizen Participation in Chile

Engaging an action research project with public officers of Santiago Municipality in Chile was a revealing, difficult and transformative experience. We sought to generate new links with communities through new citizen participation policies, but we faced strong resistances from established practices and institutional structures. We hope that reflecting on this experience may help to open bureaucratic spaces to citizen participation, through the recognition of emotional and practical knowledges that are embodied in public officers.

With the active collaboration of the Community Development Directorate, we organized collective workshops that generated a communicative space where the paradoxes of everyday work were sincerely discussed. Public officers in direct contact with the communities suffered from excessive workloads, unclear roles and insufficient support. However, they also revealed the creative potential of their emotions and knowledge gained from their everyday experiences.

These collective insights allowed to implement a new approach for citizen participation, with an unprecedented collaborative structure among different departments of this municipality. Unfortunately, this development was abandoned by the authorities at the onset of an unsuccessful re-election campaign.

In retrospect, we believe that our excessive optimism about the importance of the proposed innovations made us unaware of the necessity to sustain them with long-term institutional rearrangements, such as stable budgets and clearly defined roles.

Nevertheless, our temporary achievements show the usefulness of socioanalytic methods for transforming organizations in rigid institutional frameworks. This attempt to support intersectoral citizen participation policies in Santiago suggests ways to generate and sustain long-term changes that are sorely needed in Chilean institutions.

Link to the full paper in Action Research Journal: